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AUSSIE INVASION : Influence in U.S. Ranges From Movies and Hot Dogs to Banking and Big Business

November 16, 1986|NANCY YOSHIHARA | Times Staff Writer

When actor Paul Hogan began appearing in television commercials two years ago touting Australia to Americans, he was just an unknown Australian with a funny accent and a catchy line, "We'll put another shrimp on the barbie."

Today, he's a top box-office hit in the United States, and Australia seems to be capturing the imagination of Americans. The Aussies are cashing in on it.

They are hitting U.S. shores with something for everyone: movies, clothes, music, concrete tiles, auto parts, beer and unusual Australian hot dogs called Dinkum Dogs. They are spending money, too--millions of dollars to buy U.S. factories, businesses and other investments.

"Australia has been the flavor of the month for a while with Americans," observes Gerald Watkins, Australian trade commissioner and deputy Australian consul general in Los Angeles. "It looks like the honeymoon between Australia and the United States is continuing and growing."

It used to be that Australia conjured up far-away images of cute koalas and bouncing kangaroos. Now it's just as likely to bring to mind high-profile Australians such as investor Rupert Murdoch, financier and corporate raider Robert Holmes a Court, actors Hogan and Mel Gibson and singer-actress Olivia Newton-John.

And of course there's the America's Cup. U.S. teams battled other challengers last week in waters off the Australian coast to earn the opportunity to win back the world's premier sailing competition title snatched away by the Australians in 1983. It had been in American hands since 1853.

Australia's ties to the United States, however, run much deeper. The United States is Australia's second-largest trading partner after Japan. Its exports to the United States rose to $2.84 billion in 1985 from $2.16 billion in 1979, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Direct investment by Australians saw equally impressive growth. Investment in the United States totaled $2.7 billion in 1985, nearly five times the $572 million invested as of 1981, according to the U.S. trade statistics.

Australian investment in the United States seems to grow by the day. Just last week, Australians announced three new deals involving U.S. ventures in advertising, air freight and financial services.

The Aussies are moving into the United States at a time when their economy back home is stagnating. For years, Australia's U.S. imports have exceeded exports. But the country has been especially hard hit because prices of its primary agricultural exports and other commodities such as coal, iron ore and wool have been down on the world markets.

Aggravating the trade deficit is the drop in the value of the Australia dollar, which was devalued in January, 1985. Since then, the currency has plunged 22% against the U.S. dollar. It has also fallen against the Japanese yen and West German mark. Australian companies are looking abroad to the United States for new markets to grow. Despite a land mass equal in size to the continental United States, Australia has a population of only 16 million--equivalent to 7% of the entire U.S. population--and it is clustered around southern coastal areas.

"Companies that want to do more business have to leave Australia because the market is so limited there," explains Frank Lowy, chairman of Westfield Holdings Ltd. of Sydney, which owns U.S. shopping centers, including the Westside Pavilion in Los Angeles.

The Australian government has helped encourage overseas investment and exports by removing a system by which overseas investments had to be approved by the government. In addition, it has allowed foreign banks to enter Australia, which has helped the country to become more competitive in the world economy. It has set up trade offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and New York.

"Because of deregulation, Australian business is becoming focused on the international scene more than ever before," said Lowy.

The West Coast, particularly California, is a favorite location for Australians because of its similarity to Australia in climate and life style. Most Australians enter the United States through either San Francisco or Los Angeles, and Australia is California's sixth-largest trading partner.

More than 400 Australian companies are operating in the United States, primarily along the West Coast and in the Sun Belt, according to the Australian government. They include a handful of Australian computer software and hardware companies operating in the high-tech Silicon Valley section of Northern California and Buffums, the Long Beach-based department store chain now owned by Australian retailer David Jones Ltd., which is a unit of Adelaide Steamship Co. of south Australia.

Trade Commissioner Watkins says about 40 Australian business executives come through his Los Angeles office each week with inquiries doing business here.

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